Above is the audio version (me reading this article out). So pick whichever suits you.
Welcome to this, the first module of Train Yourself in RSE. I’ve been facilitating training courses in RSE for, coming up to, 20 years. I’ve worked with teachers, youth workers, clinicians, social workers, foster parents, outreach workers, and counsellors. I was trained in sexual health training by Carol Painter at the Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health (as it was called then) in 2003.
I’ve been slow to come round to the idea of solo ‘Train Yourself’ approaches. I still think that facilitating training, in a room, with a circle of chairs, lots of flipchart, with a co-created, ‘safe enough’ space, is the gold standard. However, Covid taught me to shift with the times and I learnt that online training can be really effective. I also know that when we made DO… RSE for Schools, the self-reflection activities were incredibly popular. So I’ve decided to try and bring these two approaches together. Train Yourself activities (in blogs and podcasts) coupled with regular online sessions where participants can come together and ask questions and perhaps try out some of the activities together.
You might want to do these by yourself or with some colleagues at the same time (please get colleagues to sign up to this too). I think the activities will work well for just you and also another colleague or two. If you have at least 5 colleagues who would like training I can run a course online or in person just for you, at a time that suits you. So send me an email if that’s something you’d like. I’ll give you a discounted rate for being a Patreon subscriber.
Whether you are doing this in a small group or by yourself you’ll need paper and pencils or paper. Occasionally I’ll supply some handouts which you may want to print out, but you’ll also just be able to use them on a screen. You may want to find a private spot, particularly if you are going to speak out loud with some colleagues.
If you’re doing this by yourself, try to also be in a private place. Maybe somewhere to stare out of the window and just be slow and thoughtful. I’m going to ask you some self-reflective questions and, in order for this to work, you’re going to have to try and answer them. If you don’t you’re just passively reading a blog post or listening to a podcast. If you are doing something else while you do this, it’s just not going to work I’m afraid.
The group agreement
At this point in a course I would be facilitating a group agreement. Group agreements are vital for delivering any kind of RSE, in my opinion. Relationships, sex, sexuality, gender, consent, bodies, are pretty tricky topics to talk about (for reasons we will explore in this module). This is true both for you and anyone you might be working with.
We may want to rely on the implicit assumption that everyone we are working with are going to be able to co-create a space which will be safe enough to do this work in. I’ve done this on occasion in the past and whenever I have I’ve regretted it. The right vibe was never created, some people were more involved than others, instead of patience there was tetchiness, and a little bit of stress. Talking about sex and relationships brings the personal into the room, whether we want it to or not. Of course that has the potential to create problems because we are also dealing with these issues for ourselves.
So much in RSE and relationships and sex generally, has this dilemma of whether to make the implicit explicit. Or to say what we see (to quote Roy Walker - shout out to the elders in the room). Even if the group agreement that we might make explicit would be the same as that which is implicit, making it explicit does something. It’s a gentle reminder, it puts everyone on the same page, it demonstrates that care is important, it is care. If you can co-create a group agreement, even better.
Once, I was delivering a 6 week course to some foster parents and youth workers. I ended up spending the whole of the first session (3 hours!) doing introductions and a group agreement. At the end of that first session they were a bit miffed at me and there was even a bit of light hearted teasing. The rest of the course went amazingly well - by that I mean everyone was participating, learning, both joyfully and with great care and seriousness. Co-creating the group agreement was clearly part of the learning, because that co-creation is what RSE is.
Having said that, I also think that we could be careful about putting too much emphasis on explicit agreements at the beginning. We want to create spaces where learning can happen, where discourses (more on this later) can be carefully opened up, new languages learnt, and new ways of being and doing learnt. So a group agreement also needs to reflect that.
So how to do them.
If you want to co-create a group agreement a good thing to do is to ask ‘what do we need to do today to make sure that this course will go as well as it possibly can?’ Or ask ‘what would we really not want to see happen, and what agreements can we have to make sure they don’t?’ Often with group agreements (particularly when people have done them before) people come up with concepts like ‘challenge effectively’ or ‘non-judgemental’. So asking more precise questions might be a more helpful way of getting to the kinds of practices that the group might actually want to have in place. If it’s a bit of a struggle, don’t force it. Just try to allow it as a process and make it clear that it’s something which you can come back to as the course progresses.
If you’re doing this in a group, try that now.
Over the years I’ve gone from spending lots of time co-creating group agreements to a much more abbreviated process. Sadly, this is because I get to spend less and less time with participants (due to funding cuts) so I also have to get cracking with the ‘main content of the course’ pretty quickly. So over the years I’ve honed my group agreements down to about five statements which I think are useful (see below). I read them out and gently just explain what they mean, and then ask how everyone feels about them. I then ask, what else do we need to add to ensure that we can all have a really great course? I also give a pause to allow people to say something if they want to - even if that means holding a silent space for an awkward amount of time.
Listen and make space for each other
I won’t put anyone on the spot
Tell the story not the person (anonymising stories that might be shared in or outside the training)
Commit to anti-oppressive practice and language
But also a space to learn and ask questions so,
Look upon each other with kind eyes.
If you’re doing this by yourself, you might want to make an agreement with yourself too. What kinds of things do you need to have in place to help you to make the most of training yourself in RSE?
You might want to think about the space you’re in. Perhaps can you give yourself a few minutes after you do some of these activities? Often participants on my courses say that it affected them personally as well as professionally too. What kinds of self care might you need to bring in? If any of this feels too tricky you don’t have to go there. There’ll be times when I’m asking you to reflect on things which might be personal, but I won’t be asking you to write down or contribute any stories.
Have a think about that now.
The group or solo agreement is for this course, but it’s also for our work too. If you’re doing RSE in a school or youth club, how can you bring in a group agreement? Perhaps you work in a clinic, or do other forms of one to one work, what kind of things can you make explicit that might make that kind of work easier? This is also something that we will cover in this module, so this is something that you can come back to.
Your own relationships and sex education
If we don’t count the group agreement as the first activity, this is the first activity. I’m going to ask you to think about your own relationships and sex education. Think back to the formal messages that you were taught at school about sex and relationships.
They might have been direct (e.g. things said to you) or indirect (e.g. things not said, or things you saw, or experienced). You might not remember much or what you might remember might be quite difficult. If it’s too difficult you don’t have to go there right now.
It might be about:
- What sex is
- Who has sex
- Why people have sex
- Self touch
- The overall vibe, how you were affected
If you’re doing this activity with other people, remember that sometimes this might be fun but for some people this might be quite tricky. So try to allow for all kinds of experiences and simply affirm what each other is saying. Don’t question what people say, or why, just listen.
If you’re doing this by yourself then do give yourself some time to go back in time. What were your reactions at the time? How did everyone else react? Was it something you felt more able to talk about? Were you given any opportunity, or skills to talk about it? Did your teachers do a group agreement with you? What kind of effect did it have on you? Did it teach you anything useful at all?
Whichever way you are doing this, spend ten minutes thinking about it and write a few notes down under the heading My / Our Own Sex and Relationships Education.
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
What do you notice about your sex and relationships education?
Okay so by now you should have a list, or diagram, or spider chart, or mind map of words or phrases in front of you. You might have quite a few, or not very many, and some of you will maybe just have one thing written down. That’s all fine. Now consider these questions:
- Which of these have been valuable to you personally?
- Is there anything you might want to add now?
- Are there any you would like to drop?
Give yourself five or ten minutes thinking about this.
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
Our collective relationships and sex education
I’ve done this activity for nearly 20 years (and I first did this activity for myself about 22 years ago). Every time I do it, a very similar set of messages comes up. Here are a few from the last couple times I’ve done it in fact.
Don’t have sex till you get married
Here’s how your periods start
Nothing much on relationships at all
Didn’t make any sense
Learnt about HIV prevention and someone’s experience of diagnosis
Being told the basics in a lesson and that was it
We didn’t take it seriously
Not given the opportunity to ask questions
Teacher not confident in getting it across
With friends it was different (supporting each other)
Not about emotions
Bananas and condoms
No discussion about consent
Couldn’t remember a lot
Not a thing to enjoy but to have a baby
What you are supposed to do in a loving marriage
TV wheeled in to watch a video
Girls and boys separated
Basic and generic
Pleasure mentioned re men but not women
Sex done to women
Women have to deal with the consequences of sex
Male / Female situation not same sex or different relationships
Not getting pregnant
Teachers put in a difficult situation delivering the material
Difficult for a friend who was left out of the class
Feeling very afraid, terrifying (a lot of us felt that way)
God and sin being part of sex ed (being taught by nuns)
Dirty and not what we should be doing
Pregnant friend left to feel ashamed and made different from everyone else
Can’t go near boys, can’t trust them
Honestly the same things come up every single time. It doesn’t matter how old the participants are, or when they got their sex and relationships education, it’s the same every time.
Sometimes there are participants on courses who had a pretty good experience of RSE at school or at home. There was a Dutch guy on a course once, and a few others who describe a reasonably comprehensive RSE curriculum, delivered in a matter of fact way, with little fuss. That’s interesting because it proves that there is nothing essential to us as humans to think of sex and relationships in these ways - but it’s learnt and cultural. It’s a common sense understanding of sex in the sense that we are told to think this way (hegemonic). But for the most part people’s experience of their own RSE was:
- We are taught that it is bad
- We are taught that it’s awkward and not to be talked about
- We are taught that sex is okay (expected) in loving relationships
- It’s all about reproduction
- It’s very hetero
So let’s just reflect on this for a minute before we move on. Imagine what the RSE of the people / person who taught you RSE was like? Imagine what the person who taught them was taught?
Now consider where else we might hear these messages. Give yourself 5 minutes to think of where you hear these kinds of messages or stories being repeated. It could be the stories we tell ourselves, or each other. Do we hear these kinds of stories at a community level, either on or offline? Do we hear these kinds of stories at a bigger institutional level?
So maybe, RSE is just one arena where these stories are being reproduced. RSE is just retelling stories about sex and relationships which are dominant.
Of course, we might want to think of sex as being just being about reproduction, or that sex is the kind of activity that we should do in a romantic relationship. But in what way does our RSE and the broader social stories tell us that we should do this, rather than helping us to find it as an option for ourselves?
What is going on here? I have my own radical take on this (feel free to ask me about it if you want), but do you have any thoughts?
These stories land differently with different people
Think about the sex we see on TV, film, porn. Who is allowed to have sex, who isn’t, what kinds of sex are allowed? Get creative and draw a sex scene from TV, film, porn. Who’s in it and what are they doing?
Maybe you drew people who met the beauty standard. Perhaps they were heterosexual. Had signifiers of wealth or success in life. That success = sexy and sexy = success. That a different set of racial groups were positioned differently in sexual contexts. How many have a disability? How old were they?
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
So we can see that a lot of the stuff that comes up as cultural sex education also comes up in media (what sex is, what the purpose is, who does). This is an example of where the stories tell us who should be having sex and how.
Another way of thinking about this is to think about the different terms used to describe:
- men who have sex,
- women who have sex,
- people with disabilities who have sex,
- black / people of colour who have sex,
- LBGT people who have sex,
- Old people who have sex
- Poor people who have sex
Be careful with this. When I was trained in this I used to invite people to write these down but I now just get people to briefly consider them. We don’t need to see a lot of slurs written down on paper to see what is going on here.
So we can also see that sex is an arena where oppressions are created and utlised. We live in cultures that afford some people more sexual decision making powers (or agency) than others. To put it crudely, who is allowed to have sex? White, straight, cis, not poor, not old, able-bodied people. Everyone else (to some extent) is given less agency by culture. Of course, these marginalised identities are also interlock (or intersect) (see the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and also the Combahee River Collective). This just means that people can experience different kinds of oppression (in this case, stigma and prejudice around sex and relationships) at the same time. For example a black woman, a disabled person who is gay, a poor man of colour.
But the set of stories that our RSE (and broader culture) has given us also isn’t good for those that society gives status to about sex. Speaking as a white, cis, straight, middle aged, man, (and having worked with thousands of young men) I can tell you that these messages are super bad for us too. I might come to this when we get onto talking about gender, but the status really turns into a set of rigid expectations and rules which reinforces a rule based masculinity (hegemonic masculinity) which is incredibly bad for us.
This is all something to bear in mind when we are having conversations around sex because culture might make it harder for some people to talk about (or to think differently about) sex and relationships. We should not make assumptions that someone won’t be able to talk about sex based on what we think their experience might be. However it is important to have this kind of understanding that culture and identity might be at play for many of the people we are working with.
What effect does this have on us when talking about sex?
Back to our own sex ed. What effect might these messages about sex and relationships have on us in our ability to talk about, or navigate, sex and relationships?
Write down a few thoughts about it. Perhaps reflect on some occasions when it was too tricky to talk about sex and relationships, for whatever reason. To what extent can you attribute some of that to some of these stories that we hear about sex?
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
This is what some other participants have come up with recently
Has a massive impact on us, just not allowed to use the words
Has an affect on our sex lives and relationships too
The shame influences our feelings and thoughts
Internalising the shame of sex and non-consensual sex
Makes us feel uncomfortable and anxious
Makes us want the conversation to end or close down the conversation
Fall back on anatomical teaching
Feeling the embarrassment of talking about sex
So when we are being asked to talk about sex and relationships we often do so without being trained, but also with a lot of our own bad experiences of sex and relationships education (and of sex and relationships). These experiences, and the stigmatising stories that envelope them literally teach us that this subject is not to be talked about. So it’s no wonder that we can find it difficult to talk about.
An opposite set of stories about sex
So if all of our stories about sex are wrong, the opposite must be right, right? Well let’s see. Let’s take the collective stories from our own RSE and that in broader culture, what would the opposite be? See what you come up with. Give yourself 5 minutes.
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
Now looking at your list, can you see any patterns? Does it bear any resemblance to stories you might see in other places?
So let’s say that the opposite is
- Sex is great
- Sex is about pleasure
- The goal should be orgasms
- It’s weird if we don’t like sex
- We should have sex in relationships (the glue that keeps us together)
- Casual sexual relationships are also great and fine
- Masturbation is the best way to learn about our body
- Sex is great for people of all genders and sexualities
We might recognise some of these stories in the media, in TV, film, magazines, lifestyle websites. Sex and the City was a great example of pioneering these kinds of stories in mainstream media and many people have come to know this as ‘Sex Positivity’.
So if the first set of stories that we discussed might be described as ‘sex negativity’ then the opposite of this, ‘sex positivity’, must be the way to go right? What do you think about that? Give yourself 5 minutes to note down your responses and thoughts to this.
For many people, including many sex educators, sex positivity is the way to go. I think that on the whole sex positivity has opened up a lot of possibilities which may have been helpful. However an uncritical approach to sex positivity might also run the risk of:
- Replacing one set of stories with another, so all we get are more stories
- That having an opposite story about sex and relationships might just also reinforce the original story and make that the default or ‘common sense’ story
- It doesn’t give us anything to disrupt the ‘common sense’ ideas of sex that surround us.
- These stories might actually end up saying quite similar things (about sex, what sex is, who gets to do it, that everyone has the same sexual agency)
- Doesn’t open up possibilities in the way we might imagine because,
- Another set of should stories which tell us what our sexual selves ‘should be’ rather than making it possible for us to find it for ourselves.
So what we have so far is a lot of stories about sex and relationships. Some of them might be grouped into what we might describe as ‘sex negative’ and others as ‘sex positive’. These stories pervade our society, culture, and are all around us. We might retell these stories to ourselves and each other.
What works for us?
If culture is the only source of information about sex then very few of us would have a sense of our own sexual or relational selves at all (the posh term for this is subjectivity). We were told it was awkward, that it was bad to talk about, and so were given no tools. However, assuming we all have some kind of self knowledge about sex and relationships (whether or not we have sex or relationships) how did we get it?
Where did we get useful tools or information, and what made it useful? Think of a useful and valuable conversation you had about sex, with a partner, or a friend, a colleague. If you can think of one, what was in place which made that a useful conversation?
Spend a minute bringing to mind a time when you had a useful or valuable conversation about sex. Then note down what was in place to help you do that.
Just pause here and scroll down when you’ve finished.
This is something that I’ve started asking recently on my courses. Here are some of the things that folk have been coming up with.
Felt part of the conversation
Didn’t feel disappointment
Being able to use humour and be lighthearted
Giving people choices
Using a resource
Sense of genuine care and love
Set down own feelings aside and focus on them
Sitting and being quiet
Not rushing people, giving people time
Pausing, allowing silence
Making encouraging sounds
Relaxed and conversational
When you know them there’s no judgement
Knowing they’re not going to be easily shocked
That they are going to be comfortable
Attuned to the person
Not being overheard
Boundaries about where and when are good times to talk about it
Taking the power out of it
Saying ‘it’s okay’
Creating a safe space to be able to talk
Private environment where no-one can overhear
The language we use (using the words they are comfortable with)
Asking them what they feel comfortable with
Knowing it’s in confidence
Asking open questions don’t box the conversation in
Do you want to tell me a bit more about that?
Reflecting that you’ve heard what they’ve said
Giving them the choice and control
They can stop when they want
It’s okay for them to step back if they’ve overshared
Tone of voice gentle tone of voice listening
Making it clear you are listening and interested
Eye contact might not always be possible
Space to explore, they might not have thought any of this through before
Give it time to think through
Knowing that might change, they might change their view about what they thought or knew
A soundboard for feelings
Using humour or just not being serious
Creating a non judgemental space
Acknowledging that it’s a vulnerable thing to talk about
Straight to the point, unawkwardness, not feeling shy
Finding a common ground
Normalising what people may feel
Know the reason why the conversation has come up, so we’re not just being nosey
This is the most important bit of this module (and there is going to be a similar refrain to a lot of the modules I do here).
First of all, whilst RSE might feel like a daunting topic to teach, it is possible to use some of these strategies in our work. Giving time, being a good listener, being curious, building trust and relationships, privacy, affirmative responses, having the right demeanour or vibe, are all things that we can do in the classroom and in the design of our education.
Secondly, these are things that have helped us in our lives. So we need to be passing on the skills for young people to be able to do this for them too. Just as important (perhaps even more important) as the content is for young people to learn these techniques so that they can put this into practice, just as you have. So group agreements, setting good vibes, how to facilitate, how to listen, how to notice and build trust are all processes that young people will learn from in themselves. The best RSE lessons I’ve had are where the students are really on board, trust me, trust each other, and are genuinely interested in what each other has to say. Then the only equipment you really need is a pen.
Thirdly, the content of our lessons should focus as much on the tools and strategies for navigating discourse, as much as the discourse itself. RSE without reference to discourse and how this runs through power relations is shit. Men receive status for being interested in sex, and women receive stigma. One way in which people are disabled is to desexualise them. See how racist tropes are often grounded in sexual and gendered ways. Look at how much transphobia there is at the moment, and homophobia, lesbophobia, and biphobia there still is.
However, if we only talk about discourse, without the tools to navigate it, then we fix individual people’s social locations. It’s disempowering and infantilising. For example, that a trans person is never going to be empowered enough to date someone, or to go dancing. Or that, because of racism, it’s never possible for a black person to go into a white owned restaurant. Or that a straight white man is never going to feel vulnerable or under confident about their sexuality.
So all RSE has to give people the tools to navigate discourse. Spending as much on this as we do discussing discourse. Asking questions like ‘what can be done about this’? Or ‘who has the power to shift things in this situation’. ‘What might someone feel / think / do here?’
Think about the RSE you might deliver (in either one to ones, in conversation, in a group work situation, or in a classroom). What can you learn from what you came up with, and what we have collectively come up with, and how can you translate that into how you deliver it? Think about:
- How you introduce it
- Group agreements
- Different learning methods
- The materials you use
- How you set up the room
- What vibes you need and what you need to do to create them
This is something that we’ll return to throughout the rest of the course.
Talking Sex Ed
Here’s my blurb: “Talking Sex Ed is a discussion game for young people (14+) about sex and relationships. With over 100 challenging and fun cards for young people to: learn and practise key skills and learn vital information whilst also exploring key concepts and reflecting on their values and ethics. It’s a (mostly) self-facilitating game, with comprehensive instructions for players on how to use a group agreement to create the right vibe. Players also cooperate and negotiate with each other about how to play and how to score. Perfect for youth projects and tutor groups and a great way to get the conversation going.”
So grab some colleagues or some family members (over 14s), load the image on a screen that you can zoom in and out of (phone and tablet works well) and play the game. Here’s the link to the instructions pdf.
As you play this, just try and notice some of what is going on which helps you. What is the game doing, what are you doing, what are others doing, what’s the vibe in the room, what’s working? These are what we need anyone we are working with to feel too - that’s RSE.